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OutRight Action International formerly known as International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission

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Sexual Orientation

Paradojas Chilenas: Derechos LGBT en América Latina

por Pedro Garcia, Paula Ettelbrick Fellow

To read the original article in English, visit: Chilean Paradoxes: LGBT rights in Latin America 

Durante los últimos años ha habido avances importantes en materia de derechos humanos para la población gay, lesbiana, bisexual y transexual (LGBT) de América Latina. El reconocimiento de uniones civiles para parejas del mismo sexo en Brasil y en Uruguay, matrimonio homosexual en la Ciudad de México y en Argentina, y leyes que protegen la identidad de género en Bolivia, Chile y Argentina. Estos cambios ponen en duda viejos estereotipos que califican al subcontinente como una región conservadora, machista, y dominada por la moral de la iglesia católica.

La lucha por los derechos humanos LGBT en América Latina no es un camino de un solo sentido. Existen paradojas dentro de los Estados y entre las naciones. El año en que la Ciudad de México legalizó el matrimonio para parejas del mismo sexo, únicamente el 29% de la población de la ciudad apoyaba el derecho de estas parejas a adoptar. En Ecuador, la Constitución prohíbe explícitamente la discriminación por motivos de orientación sexual, pero también rechaza textualmente el matrimonio y la adopción por parejas del mismo sexo. EL matrimonio gay es legal en algunos casos en Brasil, pero la población transgénero sigue siendo víctima sistemática de violentos crímenes de odio. En el 2009, Brasil reportó el mayor número de asesinatos a personas transgénero del continente. En Costa Rica el diputado evangélico Justo Orozco, quien ha afirmado que la orientación sexual es un pecado y debe tratarse, es también presidente de la Comisión de Derechos Humanos.

Chile es una gran ilustración de estas paradojas latinoamericanas. Cuando Michele Bachelet, mujer socialista, asumió la presidencia en el 2006, grupos LGBT vieron una oportunidad para hacer avanzar sus derechos en un país de un conservadurismo rígido. Irónicamente, la mayor parte del debate y legislación sobre temas LGBT tuvo que esperar hasta la presidencia actual de Sebastián Piñera, el primer presidente de derecha desde la época de Pinochet.

Durante estos últimos meses, tres temas LGBT han recibido gran atención de la población chilena: una ley antidiscriminación, impulsada por una condena al Estado chileno de la Corte Interamericana de Derechos Humanos (CIDH) y el asesinato del joven homosexual Daniel Zamudio; un proyecto de ley para permitir las uniones civiles pero prohibir el matrimonio a parejas del mismo sexo a nivel constitucional; así como el anuncio de que el Fondo Nacional de Salud chileno, el Fonasa, costeará cirugías de cambio de sexo a personas transgénero.

Continue reading “Paradojas Chilenas: Derechos LGBT en América Latina”

Indonesian Government Questioned About LBT Rights Violations

By Grace Poore
Regional Program Coordinator for Asia and the Pacific Islands

Women’s human rights defenders from Indonesia arrived in New York this week to report to the Committee for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) about flagrant violations experienced by women and girls in Indonesia across all sectors of society – female circumcision, unsafe abortions, forced sterilization of minority women, marital rape, polygamy, weak implementation of the domestic violence law, police abuses, abuses by domestic worker recruitment agencies, failure to grant reparations to women sexually violated during conflicts with the Indonesian military and police forces, judicial disregard for violence and discrimination against women, rampant abuses against women migrant workers, and many more.

Yet, violence and discrimination against lesbians, bisexual women and transgender (LBT) women was not on the agenda. The spread of intolerance by religious fundamentalists had driven a wedge within the Indonesian women’s movement. Except for one 145-page shadow report that mentioned sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) once, LBT people were invisible. Even Komnas Perempuan, the National Commission of Women was reluctant to raise LBT issues. As one Commissioner explained, “The fundamentalists are saying that when we push for women’s rights we are pushing for same sex marriage. So if we bring up LBT, it will weaken our advocacy.” Another Commissioner assured me, “We can raise the LBT issue at the next CEDAW session.” But that would be five years down the road!

Sri Agustine, director of Ardhanary Institute, a national LBT organization in Indonesia admits, “When I arrived in New York, I was pessimistic because I was the only one from my organization, and the other NGOs [non-governmental organizations] did not want to mention LBT issues because [other] women’s issues were urgent. But I’m a woman also.”

L to R: Sherlina Nageer from Guyana, Grace Poore from IGLHRC, Dorathy Benjamin from IWRAW Asia Pacific, Sri Agustine from Ardhanary Institute. (Photo courtesy of Ardhanary Institute.)

Women’s NGOs Exclude LBT Issues

Since 2000, LBT people in Indonesia have been part of the women’s movement, fighting for equality for all Indonesian women. Yet the CEDAW Convention does not apply to LBT people because LBT rights are not seen as women’s rights by the Indonesian state. This attitude is in part due to the resistance of women’s NGOs to recognize the multi-dimensional discrimination and “layered violence” that LBT people face for being women and also because of their sexual orientation and gender identity.

Agustine was pressured not to make any statements about LBTs to the CEDAW Committee. It saddened me to see how the forces of religious extremism had managed to compartmentalize advocacy and silence even those who were allies – allies who quietly supported LBT people but publicly could not afford to be associated with LBT rights.

The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) was aware that in Indonesia, fundamentalist thugs were calling up LBT groups and leaving threatening telephone messages, stalking LBT activists, violently disrupting human rights workshops and film festivals, halting conferences, using the media to incite violence against LBT people, and posting stickers on restaurant windows and banners in public spaces that said, “Destroy Gays and Lesbians.” This climate of hate and intolerance in the name of religion and morality has grown steadily since 2008 and exposed the LGBT community in general to vigilante attacks, police complicity with attackers, curbing freedom of association and assembly, stifling freedom of expression, and eroding LGBT people’s access to justice.

Decentralization

Ironically, these human rights erosions grew out of the decentralization process initiated by the Indonesian government to grant autonomy to local provinces and districts so they could govern themselves, including create their own local laws (or bylaws). Religious extremists usurped the decentralization process to create discriminatory bylaws in their provinces and enforce them with impunity in the name of morality and religion. They targeted sexual rights, reproductive rights, women’s rights and LBT rights. They regulated what women wore, the length of their hair, what public spaces they could access, and how they appeared – with penalties for butch lesbians (lesbian tomboys) for not looking “feminine enough” or transgender women (waria) for “acting like women.”

Ardhanary Institute reports that since 2008, employment discrimination and sexual bullying in schools sharply increased because of the “spread of intolerance.” By 2010, family violence against LBT people had doubled in Jakarta, the capital city, and tripled in the provinces outside Jakarta. Lesbians, particularly lesbian tomboys were increasingly being “sexually abused by fathers, uncles and brothers to change the sexual orientation of lesbians.” Those who risked going to the police faced ridicule and blame for provoking the violence and were lectured by police officers to change their sexual orientation and gender identity. Reports on the violence were quashed by police to prevent “smearing family reputation.”

According to Komnas Perempuan, the Indonesian Women’s Commission, the Ministry of Home Affairs was not properly monitoring and ensuring that the local bylaws were nondiscriminatory and in compliance with international human rights treaties that Indonesia has ratified, including the CEDAW Convention.

These realities challenged the suggestion that LBT people could wait another five years before their issues were brought to the CEDAW Committee. Agustine and I negotiated with the NGOs. Finally, they allocated eight minutes out of seventy minutes, which was fair given the number of NGOs wanting precious face time with CEDAW Committee members. Following our presentations, Komnas Perempuan and the leadership of the CEDAW Working Group of Indonesia revised their statements to include SOGI. They requested from Ardhanary Institute a regular supply of data so they could include it in their educational materials.

State Review

On the morning of July 11, Agustine walked into the room where the 52nd session of the CEDAW Committee would commence, a broad smile on her face, eyes shining. “I feel confident,” she said, having earned the support of the other activists, her sisters in struggle.

The first question on LBT rights violations was raised by Patricia Schulz, CEDAW expert from Switzerland: “The bylaws on adultery passed in Aceh, if implemented, would expose adulterers to death by stoning, and LBT persons to caning, 100 lashes. This law is pending implementation. These bylaws represent grave violations of the rights of women to life, liberty and security… there is no commitment of the government to challenge these local and provincial laws. So I ask if your government plans to systematically review the local and provincial laws and strike down all the provisions that are discriminatory to women. You have the authority and the mechanisms to do so. Let me comment that decentralisation cannot mean that the human rights of women are invalidated at the local and provincial level. Democracy and rule of law, including anti-discrimination and equality law have to walk hand in hand, at all levels of the State structure. Governments are responsible for upholding the obligations arising from ratified human rights treaties, so I hope that you will give us very good news on that respect at our next constructive dialogue.”

The second question came from Silvia Pimentel, CEDAW expert from Brazil and Chair of the Committee: “Due to different risks associated with being identified as lesbians, bisexual, or transgender, LBT people who experience violence by family are reluctant to report their cases to police. Could the State: (a) enhance operational procedures, such as victim representation and witness protection? (b) sensitize frontline staff through training to address these specific fears?”

Harkristuti Harkrisnowo, Director-General of Human Rights in Indonesia’s Ministry of Justice and Human Rights responded, “The allegation about criminalization of LBT is incorrect because Indonesia does not criminalize LBT groups.” He added, “Regarding the punishment in Aceh, the law is not in place yet.”

Harkrisnowo stonewalled. He did not shed light on what measures the state would take to ensure protections. True, Indonesia has no sodomy law like many other Muslim countries in the region. But there are laws that disproportionately affect transgender people like the vagrancy and public order laws. The Anti Pornography Law classifies homosexuality as a “deviant act” that is punishable with jail and a fine.

In addition, a total of 154 local bylaws, regulate how women dress, including lesbians and lesbian tomboys who are punished for not appearing “feminine enough” and effeminate men and transgender women are punished for “acting like women.” Other bylaws force women to cover their heads, control what public places they can socialize in, and how late they stay out – all of which directly and indirectly affect LBT people.

The most egregious of the discriminatory local bylaws is the Aceh adultery law that was passed in 2009 by religious hardliners in the Aceh government. If this law is implemented, heterosexual people will be stoned to death for adultery and LGBT people will be caned 100 times and face 8.5 years in prison for homosexuality, which the law defines as sexual activity outside marriage. Civil society groups have filed for judicial review with the Indonesia Supreme Court. To date, there has been no decision. IGLHRC has learned that the new governor of Aceh favors amending the law. LGBT groups in Aceh fear that even if stoning is removed, the penalties for homosexuality could remain unless there is greater solidarity.

As Agustine said after a long day, “SOGI needs to be included in the definition of discrimination against women in Article 1 of the CEDAW Convention. The Indonesian government needs to ensure that Indonesian LBT people have equal access to the law and justice. The Indonesian government needs to promote acceptance of sexual and gender diversity among non-state actors and destigmatize our issues.”

UPDATE: VICTORY! Seoul Student Rights Ordinance Passed with Sexual Orientation Gender Identity Clauses Included

The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission received  good news in the following letter  from Jihyye Kim  telling us of victory for LGBT Students in Korea.

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

 “We won the Seoul Student Rights Ordinance with all Sexual Orientation Gender Identity (SOGI) related clauses in the original draft included! 

…It happened after the 6 days of protest of LGBT young people and activists, day and night. This is a significant progress in our LGBT history, because we fought face-to-face against the homophobic individuals and groups, including many members of the Council…   The Council had serious debates on sexual orientation/ gender Identity  (SOGI) issues in their plenary session for the first time in our history. One of the Council members read out UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon’s recent speech…  That was the moment that the voices of LGBT people began to be heard, and LGBT people’s human rights recognized…

Continue reading “UPDATE: VICTORY! Seoul Student Rights Ordinance Passed with Sexual Orientation Gender Identity Clauses Included”

Korea: LGBT Students In Danger Of Being Left Out Of Non-Discrimination Protections

This post originally appeared in The New Civil Rights Movement.

Read the Update: Victory! Seoul Student Rights Ordinance Passed with Sexual Orientation Gender Identity Clauses Included

by Grace Poore

The Education Committee of the Seoul Metropolitan Council in Seoul, Korea has singled out sexual orientation and gender identity for exclusion from the draft bill of Seoul Students Rights Ordinance that can become law on December 19 in Korea’s capital city unless human rights activists manage to delay the bill or change the minds of the Education Committee. If passed, the Students Rights Ordinance will be the first initiative to explicitly protect students’ rights in Korea.

The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission has sent an urgent letter (below) to the Korean Education Committee of the Seoul Metropolitan Council calling for reinstatement of the removed protections for LGBT students.

Continue reading “Korea: LGBT Students In Danger Of Being Left Out Of Non-Discrimination Protections”

Observations and Meanings from the First-Ever LGBT-Specific Case Heard by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights: Karen Atala and Daughters Against the State of Chile

By Jessica Stern, IGLHRC Director of Programs
Habrá una actualización en Español más tarde este tarde. ACTUALIZACION: para leer este  blog en Español, mira: Observaciones y significados del primer caso específicamente LGBT que llega a la corte Interamericana de Derechos Humanos: Karen Atala e Hijas contra el estado de Chile 

I am writing this from a flight to Bogotá, Colombia on the week many of my friends are on vacation, the week I was supposed to ride my bicycle 100 miles as part of a lesbian gang out of my hot hometown of Brooklyn, New York to the breezy beaches of eastern Long Island. And yet, I cancelled what would have been my perfect vacation because of a woman I’ve never even met: Karen Atala.

I am en route to a hearing of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights on the case of Karen Atala and Daughters Against the State of Chile. If Ms. Atala’s name seems familiar, that’s probably because you’ve heard it before. Ms. Atala is a lesbian mother and Chilean judge who lost custody of her three daughters — then ages 5, 6, and 10 years old — in a widely publicized case in 2003. Subsequent to their divorce, Ms. Atala’s ex-husband sued for custody, and Ms. Atala lost. In reference to Ms. Atala’s sexuality, the Supreme Court of Chile issued a homophobic verdict, plain and simple; it deemed Ms. Atala’s daughters to be in a “situation of risk” that placed them in a “vulnerable position in their social environment, since clearly their unique family environment differs significantly from that of their school companions and acquaintances in the neighborhood where they live, exposing them to ostracism and discrimination, which would also affect their personal development.”

A lot has happened over these seven long years. No being woken up for school by mom. No figuring out how to get your finicky child to eat her vegetables. Without delving into another person’s pain, we can imagine the magnitude of this very formal decision on the very personal lives of Ms. Atala and her daughters.

But before you give up on this article, thinking it is just another depressing story of homophobic tragedy, let me give you a clue: this is going somewhere good.

Regional Redress

Ms. Atala, who was not only a devoted mother but also a clever lawyer and judge with strategic colleagues and friends, determined in 2004 that she had exhausted domestic remedies and would seek justice from the regional human rights system. As party to the American Convention on Human Rights (“American Convention”), the Government of Chile is subject to its jurisdiction, like all other states’ parties of the Americas, from Guatemala to Argentina. This means that if an individual cannot obtain justice at the domestic level, under specific circumstances, the regional human rights system may have jurisdiction to intervene and require that the state take certain actions. For those of us who know what it means to be systematically discriminated against by states that are racist, sexist, Islamophobic, able-bodyist, transphobic, homophobic and/or discriminatory in some other way, it may be a relief to know that there are norms and standards beyond national borders that we can turn to when we need help holding our governments accountable when domestic mechanisms fail.

Timeline

To summarize, much has happened in Ms. Atala’s pursuit of justice through the Inter-American Human Rights System. The following is an overview of significant events.

  • From 2004 to 2007, at the behest of and with the assistance from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR or “Commission”), Ms. Atala and the Government of Chile attempted to reach what was termed a “friendly settlement.” During that time, various NGOs, including IGLHRC, submitted amicus briefs to the Commission in support of Ms. Atala (PDF).
  • In October 2007, Ms. Atala and her legal team informed the Commission that negotiations concluded (presumably, not so friendly after all) and requested that the Commission admit Ms. Atala’s case to the Commission’s own review. Over protests by Chile, the Commission admitted her case.
  • In December 2009, the Commission issued a report stating that Chile violated Ms. Atala’s right guaranteed by the American Convention to freedom from discrimination. Furthermore, the Commission required the Government of Chile to “provide Karen Atala and M., V., and R. [her daughters], with comprehensive redress for the human rights violations that arose from the decision to withdraw her custody on the basis of her sexual orientation” and also called upon the state to “adopt legislation, public policies, programs and initiatives to prohibit and eradicate discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation from all spheres of public power.” To quote the blog by former IGLHRC executive director Paula Ettelbrick analyzing this decision, the Commission made history by stating unequivocally “discrimination against a parent in a child custody dispute because of his or her sexual orientation violates the American Convention on Human Rights.”
  • From February to August 2010, the State of Chile met in an inter-governmental working group to address the Commission’s recommendations. The Commission ultimately concluded that “the State has failed to comply with the recommendation to provide reparations to the victims” and that “the measures outlined by the State of Chile, although relevant, are of a general character and are not directed in a specific way to avoid repetition of the violations that occurred in the present case.” As a result, in an application in September 2010, the Commission submitted the case to the jurisdiction of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR or the “Court”).
  • On July 7, 2011, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights announced that it would hear the case of Karen Atala and Daughters Against the State of Chile. The case was subsequently scheduled to be heard August 23 – 24, 2011.

The Implications

The Court’s verdict will have far-reaching implications that courts; human rights defenders; NGOs; lawyers; and most importantly, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people should monitor closely. The following are some of the reasons why.

  • First, the Court’s decision will be legally binding, and the Government of Chile has already agreed to abide by its terms. At the domestic level, if the verdict is favorable, it will have directly positive implications on Karen Atala’s family, though it is difficult to imagine what reparations could possibly look like in an 8-year old child custody case. Additionally, a favorable decision by the Court would potentially mean the creation and enforcement of stronger LGBT rights policy and programming within Chile itself. (How such a decision would play out domestically is an additionally complicated aspect of this case, but nonetheless a pleasant issue to grapple with.)
  • Second, the Court has relatively little history of work on discrimination, so its decision to hear a case about discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation means that the Inter-American Court of Human Rights could take the extraordinary step of establishing its test for discrimination at least in part based on its understanding of homophobia. This is remarkable. Compared with most jurisdictions – where sexual orientation is a late-day add-on, interpreted into existing norms, and even designated as a less egregious manifestation of discrimination than issues like religion or race — this stands to put sexual orientation at the center of a court’s understanding of a fundamental right.
  • Third, a favorable verdict by the court would be the first decision by a regional human rights court outside of the European Court of Human Rights explicitly in favor of LGBT rights. The significance of this cannot be overstated.
  • Fourth, at a minimum, a favorable decision by the Court would contribute to a growing perception that homosexuality should not only have no place in an assessment of an individual’s ability to parent, but further that sexual orientation in fact constitutes a protected class that must be protected from discrimination. This helps those working on LGBT rights globally.
  • Fifth, in courtrooms from the village level to high courts, throughout the Americas, a positive decision in the case of Karen Atala means that no parent should ever again be discriminated against on the basis of their sexual orientation in the issue of child custody.

For the moment, let’s not even entertain the possibility of a negative verdict.

In light of these and other significant implications, IGLHRC and allies, particularly Madre, Morrison & Foerster LLP, the International Women’s Human Rights Clinic at the City University of New York, will submit an amicus brief to the Court in an effort to provide it with compelling evidence to find in favor of Ms. Atala and her daughters.

To echo Paula Ettelbrick’s blog’s opening statement as I close, thank you, Karen Atala. Whatever happens this week, in the face of the injustice done to you and your daughters, you have helped move the rest of us forward. For now, vacations can wait.

Stay tuned for updates from the trial throughout the week…

Natasha Jiménez y su experiencia al llamar la atención de la ONU sobre la homofobia y la transfobia

To read this blog in English, see: Natasha Jiménez on Her Experience Spreading Awareness of Homophobia and Transphobia at the UN

En este blog, la activista costarricense Natasha Jiménez de Mulabi ofrece sus comentarios finales sobre la última reunión del Comité de la ONU para la Eliminación de todas las formas de Discriminación contra la Mujer (CEDAW). Natasha comparte observaciones de su reunión con la integrante cubana del Comité de la CEDAW , las observaciones a la presentación del gobierno de Zambia ante el Comité, y ofrece una síntesis de su experiencia en Nueva York.

Día 6 — 13 Julio

Las activistas de Costa Rica se reunieron con la integrante cubana del Comité de la CEDAW, Magalys Arrocha, para hablar con ella un poco más sobre la homofobia y la transfobia, con la esperanza de animarla a que apoyen sus contribuciones en las recomendaciones de la CEDAW para el gobierno de Costa Rica. Hay una gran posibilidad de incluir algunos de nuestros temas en las recomendaciones.

Durante la mañana y la tarde, la delegación oficial del gobierno de Zambia presentó su informe y respondió a las preguntas de los miembros del Comité de la CEDAW. En estas sesiones se incluyeron varios intercambios interesantes. En primer lugar, los miembros del Comité hicieron preguntas al Gobierno sobre la falta de mecanismos para defender los derechos de las mujeres en Zambia. La Delegación del Gobierno respondió que eso se debe a los bajos niveles de alfabetización y la poca cantidad de angloparlantes en Zambia. El Comité también preguntó acerca de prácticas culturales que pueden ser consideradas discriminatorias contra las mujeres, las delegadas dijeron que están capacitando a las personas jóvenes y utilizando las radios comunitarias como mecanismo para aumentar la concienciación y la educación. El Gobierno también afirmó que se está trabajando con los medios de comunicación para cambiar los puntos de vista de la población en Zambia.

Por la tarde tuvo lugar otro almuerzo con los miembros del Comité, esta vez organizada por Italia

Para cerrar, me gustaría decir que fue una experiencia maravillosa llena de aprendizaje y enseñanzas. He aprendido mucho de IGLHRC y las capacitadoras de IWRAW Asia Pacífico. Las herramientas que nos dieron eran muy útiles para hacer el proceso de la CEDAW más fácil. Las delegadas de las ONG de Zambia, Italia, Kenya y mis propias colegas de Costa Rica me enseñaron mucho acerca de las realidades que las mujeres encaran en esos lugares. También creo que aprendieron mucho sobre la realidad de las mujeres lesbianas, trans e intersex de mis experiencias y las conclusiones que compartí en mi informe sombra.

Por encima de todo, doy gracias a IGLHRC por permitirme ser parte de este extraordinario viaje y este intercambio de conocimientos, vivencias, saberes y poderes.

Para leer el reporte sombra que Natasha escribió, mira la página de reportes en IGLHRC.org

Natasha Jiménez on Her Experience Spreading Awareness of Homophobia and Transphobia at the UN

Para leer este blog en español, mira: Natasha Jiménez y su experiencia al llamar la atención de la ONU sobre la homofobia y la transfobia

In this blog, Costa Rican activist Natasha Jiménez of Mulabi provides her final on-the-ground report from the most recent session of the UN Committee for the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Natasha shares insights from her meeting with the CEDAW Committee Member from Cuba, observations from the government of Zambia’s presentation to the Committee, and provides a wrap-up of her experience in New York.

Day 6 — July 13th

The activists from Costa Rica met with the CEDAW Committee Member from Cuba, Magalys Arrocha, to talk to her a little more about homophobia and transphobia with the hope of encouraging her to support us in her contributions to the CEDAW recommendations to the government of Costa Rica. There’s a very good possibility of including some of our themes in her recommendations.

Over the morning and afternoon, the official delegation of the government of Zambia presented their report and answered questions from the CEDAW Committee Members. These sessions included several interesting exchanges. First, the Committee Members asked the government questions about the lack of mechanisms to defend women’s rights in Zambia. The government delegation responded that it is because of low literacy and few English speakers in Zambia. The Committee also asked about cultural practices that may be considered discriminatory against women, the delegates said that they are educating the youth and using community radio as a mechanism to raise awareness and education. The government also claimed that it is working with the media to change the views of the Zambian people.

The afternoon was another lunch with the Committee Members, this time organized by Italy.

To close, I would say this was a marvelous experience full of learning and lessons. I learned a lot from the IGLHRC and IWRAW Asia Pacific trainers. The tools they gave us were very useful in making the CEDAW process easier. The NGO delegates from Zambia, Italy, Kenya and my own colleagues from Costa Rica taught me a lot about the realities that individual women face from these places. I also think they learned a lot about the realities of lesbian, trans and intersex women from my experiences and the findings I shared in my shadow report.

Above all, I thank IGLHRC for allowing me to be a part of this extraordinary trip and this sharing of knowledge, experiences, learning, and capacity.

To read the shadow report that Natasha wrote, visit the reports page on IGLHRC.org

Amazing Responses by CEDAW to Address LGBT Discrimination in Singapore

by Grace Poore, IGLHRC Regional Coordinator for Asia and Pacific Islands

The purpose of the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which is monitored by a Committee, is to codify international legal standards for women’s rights. To date, 186 countries have ratified CEDAW. Twice a year in Geneva and once a year in New York, a committee of 23 independent experts meets to hear how governments are implementing the convention to ensure equality for women. To supplement the information they receive from the state, the CEDAW Committee also reviews reports from NGOs (called shadow reports) to get a truer picture of women’s lives and what the state is doing to advance women’s equality.

The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) assists NGOs to develop shadow reports, sponsors activist travel so they can present their issues directly to the CEDAW Committee, and assists groups to prepare oral statements that the CEDAW Committee hears during informal meetings and briefings with NGOs.

Members of Sayoni with Grace Poore (Right) of IGLHRC (Photo by Sayoni)

With the humidity outside, it felt like 110 degrees, but inside Conference Room 3 of the North Lawn Building of the New York campus of the United Nations, temperatures vacillated between cold frustration and fiery excitement during the Singapore review at the 49th Session of the Committee for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Time and again, the Singapore state delegation side-stepped questions or minimized discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) as members of the CEDAW Committee repeatedly asked how the Singapore government addresses the numerous inequalities faced by sexual minority women [1].

Sayoni Members Awaiting CEDAW session to begin. Members of state delegation in background. (Photo by Grace Poore)

On July 22, I joined three members of Sayoni, a Singapore lesbian, bisexual and transsexual women’s group, who had travelled from their country to New York for a training on CEDAW, to meet CEDAW members and attend the CEDAW session to monitor how human rights violations of lesbian, bisexual and transgender (LBT) people would be covered during the review of Singapore. We could barely suppress relief, gratitude and joy as we saw how the CEDAW Committee held the government of Singapore accountable. The Committee’s response was a testament to Sayoni’s well-written shadow report and continuous education of members of the Committee about issues facing LBT people in Singapore.

Background

In 2007, under its last review by CEDAW, the Singapore state delegation denied that women faced discrimination on the basis of their sexual orientation and gender identity. In its statement to the CEDAW Committee, the state said, “Singapore respected human rights, but it was subjected to contradictory pressures. It upheld morality and human rights very stringently, but in the context of what was best for the majority and for society. With regard to homosexuality, the majority was still quite conservative. Homosexuals were not discriminated against; they had the same right to employment, education or housing as everyone else.” [2]

Unconvinced by this response and in preparation for the 2011 CEDAW session, the CEDAW Committee asked Singapore, “Please comment on reports with regard to prevalent and systematic discrimination against women based on sexual orientation and gender identity in the social, cultural, political and economic spheres in the State party. What measures are being undertaken to address these problems, especially with a view to destigmatizing and promoting tolerance to that end.” [2]

The value of having questions on SOGI posed by the CEDAW Committee in the preliminary list of issues and during the subsequent constructive dialogue (more about this later) with the government is that the issue then stands a chance of being reflected in the Committee’s Concluding Comments and recommendations to the state.

Constructive Dialogue

Sayoni members worked long and hard on shadow report. (Photo by Grace Poore)

At the start of this CEDAW session, the Minister of State and Chair of the Singapore state delegation, Halimah Yacob, presented the state report but failed to mention sexual orientation even once. During subsequent exchanges with the CEDAW Committee in what is termed “constructive dialogue with the state,” various members of the Singapore delegation chose to deflect questions about sexual orientation or treat these questions as relevant to Singapore’s domestication of the CEDAW Convention, i.e., on the ground implementation of the principles of the Convention.

At one point, Ms. Yacob said, “I want to say categorically that there is no systematic policy of discrimination against LGBTs.” Another time she said, “Our laws are gender neutral. We do not look at the sexuality of the person. If someone who is LGBT is discriminated at work, they can appeal to the MOM (Ministry of Manpower) to review the dismissal. That applies to all the other public services that is provided.”

CEDAW Committee Questions that Explicitly Addressed LBT Women

The following questions and comments by several members of the CEDAW Committee during the constructive dialogue with Singapore capture the ways in which multiple discriminations play out in the lives of sexual minority women — in clear violation of international human rights standards.

  • Dubravka Simonovic (CEDAW expert from Croatia) – “Recommendations from previous concluding observations of the Committee are not taken up … prohibition of discrimination on sex and gender, and also are you considering the possibility to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation?”
  • Patricia Schulz (CEDAW expert from Switzerland) – “I have looked at the rules concerning one of the Disadvantaged groups of women. Lesbian, bisexual and transgender women seem to live in a weird legal framework. Article 377a of the penal code criminalizes homosexuality between consenting adult men, not between women. But women are probably indirectly affected in their enjoyment of rights to housing and employment due to this criminalization of homosexuality. Is it so? And do these women also enjoy the rights to shared property, inheritance rights, etc. In addition, various regulations from the Media Development Authority prohibits the positive or even neutral depiction of lesbianism. I have read on the Internet that media are regularly fined for violation of this regulation, simply for showing lesbianism as acceptable. Please explain how you reconcile this regulation with Article 2 of the convention and General Recommendation 28, that prohibits all forms of discrimination against ALL women including on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity. Please also explain if and why you consider that the Media Development Authority’s regulation is compatible with Article 5 of the CEDAW Convention, considering the negative stereotyping of LBT women due to the MDA regulations.”
  • Silvia Pimentel (CEDAW expert from Brazil and chair of the Committee) – “Article 19 of the CEDAW Convention specifies elimination of prejudice … How is the Singapore government ensuring that its laws are prohibiting any form of bias and discrimination because of sex, sexual orientation, age, place of birth, religion? … Are you envisaging the possibility of removing censorship of homosexuality from media codes and policies? We know the power of media reinforcing prejudices in society … Will you amend the law on domestic violence and extend it to de facto couples and same-sex couples? … Singapore healthcare system is supposed to be affordable and accessible to all. Does the state recognize women in same-sex partnership in public health policies so that they can access medical rights, financing and family planning?
  • Maria Helena Lopez (CEDAW expert from Timor Leste) – “… in paragraph 58 of your responses to the list of issues, you spoke of encouraging minority groups and women with disabilities to participate actively in political and public life. Especially with reference to the principle of non-discrimination as contained in the Committee’s General Recommendation 28 pertaining to sexual orientation … I wanted to know whether this includes sexual minority women … One of the members of your delegation … spoke about the requirement for public servants to consult with stakeholders. And again, in relation to sexual orientation, I wanted to know whether that includes women of sexual minorities.
  • Niklas Bruun (CEDAW expert from Finland) – “… regarding sexual harassment in the workplace, you have said the Penal Code and other legislation can be used to address this but as seen in other countries, there needs to be separate legislation on sexual harassment in the workplace. In this regard are you paying attention to the problems that vulnerable women may face due to, for instance, their sexual orientation?
  • Magalys Arocha (CEDAW expert from Cuba) – “[you have said] all persons are equal before the law no matter what their sexual orientation … have the right to access to all basic services including the right to complain … I’d like to know what measures have been adopted to ensure compliance … what kind of administrative action has been taken, what kind of awareness raising has taken place, what changes in subjectivity have been provided for government workers, for educators, for medical personnel, and those in the legal system to ensure that there is no direct or indirect discrimination in any service provided? In other words, what are the mechanisms that have been provided to analyze, assess and follow up cases of discrimination and complaints that are filed by women from minority groups who experience discrimination based on sexual orientation and sexual identity?
  • Olinda Bareiro (CEDAW expert from Paraguay) – “How does the state party support women’s associations defending the rights of women? And the rights of women’s movements for sexual freedom and for gender parity. I think this women’s movement, madam, is the best guarantee we have for finding what we are all seeking and that is equality for women in Singapore.”
  • Ruth Kaddari (CEDAW expert from Israel) – “… What are rights of de facto unions in Singapore especially economic, monetary rights of women who are not formally married? Are they recognized in any way?”

Progress

Member of Sayoni working on Intersections Diagram for Presentation to Committee (Photo by Grace Poore)

Despite the Government of Singapore’s pronouncements—which are clearly disconnected from the reality of what it means to be invisible, afraid of living and working openly as a lesbian, and targeted for being gender variant—I found the exchange between the CEDAW Committee and the Singapore state delegation to be a rewarding experience. It reflected years of work to get the CEDAW Committee on par with other treaty monitoring bodies regarding sexual orientation and gender identity. At this session, I was particularly elated by the responsiveness of the Committee to our presentations on the intersectional aspects of discrimination—where sexual orientation and gender identity meet housing, employment, healthcare, welfare benefits, property rights, and lack of protections from family and partner violence.

I remember how much work it took to achieve this level of recognition of LGBT rights. I recall IGLHRC’s statement to the Committee about the need to explicitly include SOGI in its General Comment on Article 2 of the convention. I have warm memories of the successful launch of Equal and Indivisible: Crafting Inclusive Shadow Reports for CEDAW, IGLHRC’s handbook for writing CEDAW shadow reports incorporating SOGI, which Sayoni told me they found invaluable for producing their shadow report. I remember working with colleagues to develop IGLHRC’s recommendation on the intersection of discrimination on the basis of age and sexual orientation – and our joy when hearing that the Committee had included SOGI in General Recommendation No. 27 on older women and protection of their human rights and General Recommendation No. 28 on the Core Obligations of States Parties under Article 2 of CEDAW – both of which make explicit that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity is inextricably linked with discrimination against women on the basis of sex or gender and that it must be prohibited and addressed under States’ CEDAW obligations.

Throughout this CEDAW session, Committee members wanted to interact with NGOs working on LBT rights and wanted to learn more about the realities of LBT people’s lives. This to me is a significant change in the way CEDAW has historically viewed sexual orientation and gender identity. One member of the Committee who previously opposed the idea that CEDAW’s mandate should cover these issues has since changed her mind, because the UN system has progressively recognized SOGI as grounds for human rights violations. For her it was a matter of now complying with the positions taken by the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon and the UN General Assembly.

Of significant note during the 49th session of CEDAW is that sexual orientation and gender identity not only came up during the review of Singapore but also during the review of two other Asian countries, South Korea (Republic of Korea NGO Report, LCC Shadow Report) and Nepal

I hope the Committee’s willingness to engage with the Government of Singapore on SOGI carries through to the next step – making sure to include these issues in its Concluding Comments and recommendations to the state. Until then, members of Sayoni as well as the broader LGBT community in Singapore will hold their breath and wait.

NOTES

[1] “sexual minority” is a term used by CEDAW and Sayoni.

[2] CEDAW Committee, 39th Session, Summary Record of the 803rd meeting—consideration of reports submitted by States parties under article 18 of the Convention: Third periodic report of Singapore. UN Doc. CEDAW/C/SR.803 (A) (2007)

[3] List of Issues and Questions With Regard to the Consideration of Periodic Reports: Singapore, November 4, 2010. CEDAW/C/SGP/Q/4

Costa Rican Activist Natasha Jiménez Reporting From CEDAW in New York

Para leer estas actualizaciones de Natasha en Español, mira: La activista costarricense Natasha Jiménez informa sobre la CEDAW en Nueva York  

This week Natasha Jiménez, an activist from Costa Rica who is a member of Mulabi, an organization that provides a space to discuss sexualities and rights in Latin America, is presenting her shadow report on LBT rights in Costa Rica at the 49th session of the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in New York. IGLHRC worked with Natasha for many months on the creation of her shadow report and also provided resources so that Natasha could come to New York to conduct advocacy.

IGLHRC prioritizes work with CEDAW because monitoring its implementation has been a highly effective place for LBT activists globally to generate attention to their governments’ failings on a broad range of issues, including violence, gender roles, stereotyping, and decriminalization.

Natasha has written about the first few days of her stay in New York and will continue to write about her experiences with CEDAW. We are pleased to share her writing with you.

Days One to Three

Participation in CEDAW

The presenters from the training by IWRAW Asia Pacific, in the days prior to the presentation of the reports.

The first three days of my stay in New York were set aside for a training with International Women’s Rights Action Watch (IWRAW) Asia Pacific. In this training, IWRAW shared tools to help us gain a better understanding of the CEDAW process.

We learned how to enter into the process, what to expect from each member of the CEDAW Committee, how to present our materials, and how to organize the briefing with the committee members, among other things.

These training sessions were held at a religious center [Ed: the United Nations Church Center] just steps from where all of the women invited to the training (including activists from Costa Rica, Zambia, Ethiopia, and Italy) were staying.

Day Four

Adriana Maroto, Alda Facio and Natasha carrying the sandwiches for the informal lunch with the CEDAW Commissioners.

Going to the United Nations

Even though I submitted a form to request an entrance pass to the United Nations with my preferred name, my badge was printed with my legal name (how it appears on my passport). Security officials at the UN pass office argued that it should be done this way because otherwise it would appear that two people involved.  During the informal lunch briefing that the Costa Rican Committee Members hosted later in the day, this experience helped me talk about the way trans people are denied the right to their own identity. (We also used that time to discuss the health needs of transgender and intersex people and the arbitrary arrests we are often subjected to.)

Each day NGOs from a given country (not: state NGO delegations) host a lunch briefing for all of the CEDAW Committee members. Today’s lunch was completely organized by the three NGOs from Costa Rica. We had to decide everything from what food and drinks to buy, how to get it to the room, who would moderate the table and how we would bring up and focus on priority topics.

Almost all of the CEDAW Committee members came to the lunch and they asked several questions about the experiences of average women, the experience of rural women, housewives and their pensions, distribution of wealth when a marriage dissolves, and the recognition of same-sex couples.

Some members of the CEDAW Committee, including women from Paraguay and Spain, approached me to discuss the situation of trans and intersex populations.

Presentation of the Report

Natasha Jiménez during the summary reading of the Shadow Report to the CEDAW Committee

After lunch, the three organizations from Costa Rica, including Mulabi, had a total of 15 minutes to present from our shadow reports. Fortunately, we practiced our presentations to coordinate the order and themes. Our preparation paid off: our presentations were slow and measured which, I think, also had to do with our knowledge of the topic.

Debrief

At the end of the day, we held a session to speak about our experience and what we learned overall. We were all pleased with the presentation and feel that we set a good example for the other delegations.

Day Five

The Government of Costa Rica Responds

The day after the presentation of our shadow report, it was the government representatives’ turn to respond to questions from members of the CEDAW Committee. But before that, it was their duty to present the official report.

The president of INAMU answering questions from the CEDAW Committee

The Deputy Minister of Health, the President of the Supreme Court of Justice and the Director of INAMU (National Institute for Women) represented the Costa Rican government.

These representatives were questioned about the information presented in the shadow reports and each of the CEDAW articles.

The first thing the CEDAW Committee mentioned was that the state report is very long (200 pages), the information is extremely outdated (with data from 2006), and they regret that those who came from the government are not of the highest rank. For example, the the Minister of Health didn’t attend and instead sent the Deputy Minister and the Director of IMANU had not a Ministerial range.

That afternoon, after the informal lunch hosted  by the Committee of the Delegation of Zambia, the session was re-opened for further questioning of the official delegates.

The questions the CEDAW Committee members asked the state representatives from Costa Rica covered the following topics:

  • Women’s participation in politics
  • African women
  • Women with disabilities
  • In vitro fertilization
  • Sexual diversity
  • Civil unions for same sex partners
  • Trans people and their specific needs (right to choose a name and specific health care)
  • Therapeutic abortion
  • Alimony

The list goes on…

Stay tuned for more firsthand accounts of advocacy at the UN from Natasha! To see more photos that Natasha has shared with us, visit our gallery on Picasa or on FaceBook

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